I’m doing it backwards!

In past posts, I have discussed differing writing styles, tendencies, and trends that I have in comparison to other writers. The “way” they tell you to do it in books. The “best practices” that are instructed in writers conferences or even in schools (although it has been 34 years since I last took a Creative Writing class).

I am a big advocate for doing what works best for the individual. By the time you are connected to an editor through a publisher, your “style” may be forced to change to meet the deadlines placed before you. In the meantime, until you get to that point, write as you wish.

If I actually paid attention to the books and the instruction, I would have to admit that I am doing things…backward! Assuming that the editing and revising process is for chipping away at a bunch of extra stuff you threw in on the first draft, a la a NaNoWriMo effort, all subsequent drafts are a purge and a cleanse. However, I am creating characters and telling a story in my first draft and am driven to just, for lack of a better description, getting it out.

In both my first historical crime fiction, “Ark City Confidential”, as well as the recently completed follow-up, I have come to realize that I am adding on to drafts two and three before purging and cleaning in draft four and onward. I look for logic errors in terms of character description or designation, add scene enhancements to color and flavor, maybe even throw in a red herring I hadn’t considered before.

I remember seeing a video on YouTube by Les Edgerton, who I had met at the OWFI conference a couple of years ago. He was fascinating and had some definitive ideas about writing. In the video, he talked about the process of being meticulous in his first draft in terms of sentence structure, word choice, and storytelling. There was an absolute precision about the first draft, no matter how long it took.

While I respect Les and his craft, that doesn’t work for me. Some people might point to his publishing success as an end result of his process. While there may be a correlation, I enjoy writing, the process of writing, and the craft. Publishing is a by-product of that process. So, while I respect and admire teachers of any sort, I also recognize the myriad methodologies that exist and the countless writers honing their craft.

Direction is a matter of perspective. Am I doing it backwards? Depends upon your point of view.

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What’s your style?

With regard to the aforementioned question, I am not inquiring as to genre or even fiction versus non-fiction versus poetry. I have come to realize that all writers have a different style in the manner in which they write. For the longest time, we have accepted the notions of Plotters and Pantsers. Plotters are meticulous and detail-oriented, outlining their stories and creating intricate biographies for their characters. Pantsers, as the name implies, write by the seat of the their pants. They have a rough idea of a story and characters but are content to discover what happens along the way.

As we all realize, there is no correct way or proper methodology. But I would like to present two new concepts to you for thought as well as discussion. Flauberts and Black Maskers.

Gustave Flaubert was a French writer of the mid-nineteenth century, a leading exponent of literary realism, and known especially for his novel “Madame Bovary.” He had a scrupulous devotion to style and aesthetics and pursued the principle of finding le mot juste, “the right word.” There were other prominent French writers in literary realism of the time, including Honore de Balzac and Emile Zola, whose output was far more prodigious than Flaubert. As such, he can only be evaluated by a smaller group of works.

The pulp writers of the 20’s and 30’s, primarily those writing for magazines like the Black Mask, were paid by the word. Too often we find whole sections of action thrillers and crime and mystery fiction to be endless description or first-person narrative that drones on. It’s understandable when you consider the payment structure. However, you might come across a truly brilliant piece of writing, such as Jim Thompson’s “The Killer Inside of Me” that is as haunting as anything Stephen King wrote. These guys have long lists of short stories and novels.

Now this may be nothing more than a new take on the Plotters versus Pantsers. But I’d like to know: Are you a Flaubert or a Black Masker?

So much more to do!

What do you do after you’ve worked hard to write a book in a totally new genre, found a publisher, gone through the editing process, and eagerly awaited the publication date of your book? You write the next one.

But, wait, there’s all that marketing and promotional stuff and advertising and….

Yes, but you still have to write. You ARE a writer, first and foremost

If it feels like my head is spinning, it’s because it is. I made a promise to myself to complete the first draft of the follow up to Ark City Confidential, my Prohibition-era crime novel set in rural Kansas. And I did. This way I could focus on the OWFI conference. Which I also did.

Then, I outlined the third book in the series just because, well, the story was playing around in my mind and needed to at the very least be written down. So, now as I go back to the editing/rewriting process of the second one, I’ve come across more marketing opportunities for the first one and…

Oh, yeah, and I’ve got to make my lunch for work tomorrow and make a list for grocery shopping on Sunday and…

When you are a writer, you are literally in the middle of a tornado. (A fitting analogy for the guy who lives in Kansas.) There is no rest. I mean, here it is, Thursday night, paying bills, and I’m taking the time to write a blog post because I have something to say (wild and chaotic but it is SOMETHING!).

The most important thing to realize is that there is a “business” side to the arts, any discipline, and it has to fit in like a snug jigsaw puzzle piece into the rest of your life. There is so much more to do, yes. And with all this, I am enjoying every moment.

And we’re on to the next one.

Before I left the OWFI Conference last year, someone told me that publishers were looking for series characters. I had completed my Prohibition-era crime novel, Ark City Confidential but hadn’t yet offered it to anyone. There I was on the two and a half hour ride home to Wichita thinking about a series.

Without anything more than time and some jazz and lounge music, I cobbled out in my head the “scenarios” for three stories to follow. Obviously the most important one is the next one. What I have found so far is that it is harder than writing the original. There was a sense of discovery as the characters unfolded before me, revealing themselves, with minor epiphanies along the way. I remember the “Aha!” moment at work when I figured out how it would end.

So, now it’s published. It’s out there as a real world created in my imagination. Whereas stories can change and morph during a first, second, or third draft, I am finding that it is important to keep a sense of wonder about my main character, Baron Witherspoon, the disfigured World War I vet who is a beat cop in Arkansas City, KS. I can’t act as though “Oh, I told his story in the first book and now everybody knows him.” The truth is there is still more to learn. There is always more to learn such as it is with couples, friends, or co-workers. No matter how well you think you know someone, you must expect more in terms of depth that you have not yet fathomed.

The story is emerging slowly and the secondary characters are demanding their fair share of time. As long as they are interesting, they will be more than welcome in this world. And, as with the first, there is more historical research to do to maintain the proper sense of time and place. It’s really quite funny that I had been looking for something to work on after this one was completed. Looks like I’ll be busy for a while.

A Writer Defines Success As…?

Far be it from me to advise ANY writer what the definition of “success” is on any terms: personal, professional, spiritual, or anything else. Where you are in your career and what your goals are determine that? Did John Irving consider it a success to win an Oscar for adapting his own novel, “The Cider house Rules”, into a screenplay? How could John Kennedy Toole know his novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces”, would win the Pulitzer Prize over ten years after his suicide? And John O’Brien committed suicide two weeks AFTER learning that his novel, “Leaving Las Vegas”, was going to be made into a movie. The bottom line is that we can not judge.

I started with two self-published short novels, largely so I would have something to “offer” my parents who had been so supportive and encouraging throughout my life. Just to have them read those two minor works was a success to me. In a hospital shortly before being taken to hospice, my father inquired about my forthcoming novel through a traditional publisher. Regrettably he did not live to see it published. My mother got a copy and was upset when staff at the assisted care facility were negligent in returning it to her expediently. That was her prized possession. The second novel from that publisher was released after her passing.

Now, with the release of a new historical fiction through a new publisher, I have taken a step forward. Financially? No, not yet anyway. But professionally, I took a risk writing something with a greater degree of difficulty based on the necessary research. In working with a new publisher, The Wild Rose Press, I had the opportunity to work with an editor and graphic design team and a whole group of people who were sincerely intent on looking out for my interests and encouraging me to use all the resources they had available. How is it possible to NOT consider that a success?

Don’t get me wrong. There are the fantasies/dreams/hopes of the New York Times Best Sellers List and a movie deal and attending premieres. The ultimate success? Perhaps. As long as I continue to develop as a writer, tell and engaging story, and am able to connect with readers, everything ELSE that comes from that is just additional enrichment.

If you HAVE purchased “Ark City Confidential”, please leave a review either on the publisher’s site or at Amazon. This will go a long way to ensuring a measure of success.

It’s Actually Happening

As many writers are aware, there are many steps and check marks along the way of writing the novel. There is the initial idea, much like a spiritual epiphany. Then the first draft, kind of like escaping from Egypt, followed by the rewrites, which feels like the forty years of wandering in the dessert. The search for an agent, editor, or publisher seems like climbing Mt. Sinai. The contract and the publishing process is almost the same feeling as Moses being given the Ten Commandments. And then…

Yes, a lot of Old Testament biblical analogies. The joys, and struggles and pain of the entire writing process is very much like a religious experience. Writers know this; the rest of you may not. So, when you receive an email whose subject line is WORLDWIDE RELEASE DATE NOTICE, it feels like you’ve reached the Promised Land.

I am very pleased to announce that my Prohibition-era crime fiction, “Ark City Confidential” will be released through The Wild Rose Press on January 11, 2017. An intricate story of gangsters in small town Arkansas City, KS in 1934, known to many as The Year of the Gangster, this richly detailed tale of a disfigured WWI veteran turned cop locking horns with a sly Chicago thug hiding out will remind readers of Bonnie and Clyde and several other Depression-era tales.

There will be a cover reveal and book signings to line up and other types of marketing efforts. Sure, the whole purpose is to sell the book. But for one moment, I stop and reflect on all the various stops along the way. It’s been an exciting journey and it seems like it’s only just begun.

No, no, no. The work is just getting started.

Every writer knows this story:

You work on getting out a first draft. Six months. A year. Two. Or maybe the 30 days of NaNoWriMo. Whatever it takes.

Then, there is the hair-pulling teeth-gnashing headache-inducing editing/revision/rewriting process. You don’t want to delete an entire chapter but if it slows down the flow…You know. You’ve been there.

Now, it’s on to finding an agent or a publisher or an editor. You do the query letter, the pitch, the elevator pitch, the research, the writing conferences, the platform using every last bit of social networking you can think of.

And, voila!, you get your book sold to a small press, a contract is offered, and everything is peaches and cream.

HOLD ON! SLAM ON THE BRAKES!

You think you have gotten to the pinnacle, your longstanding dream has been realized and your mission in life is fulfilled. This is the time, you realize, when the work is just getting started. Everything up until then has been about your personal satisfaction, your accomplishments. But once you enter into a professional partnership with an agent or publisher, your dream is being shared and there is far more to do. You have a responsibility to ensure that THEIR dream is fulfilled as well. And that dream is successful publication and sales.

There is the editing process, the cover design process, the release, and the marketing, all while writing the next work to have something to follow up with as quickly as possible. If I were half my age, I do not think I would be prepared for this. However, I have been around long enough to recognize and appreciate the entire process, how it goes from personal to collaborative to business-oriented before returning to literary. Writing a book, by yourself, in your spare time, at a quiet location, is deeply personal and highly satisfactory. Keep in mind: you didn’t do it just for yourself.

I have had the good fortune of being signed by The Wild Rose Press who will be publishing my historical crime fiction “Ark City Confidential.” It has been an intense process, one I have not shied away from nor resented. In fact, all this has reinvigorated me and encouraged me more than the writing of the piece alone. It has given me the confidence to know that others are interested in your success as well and that it really IS a team effort.

So, yes, I am working and writing and editing and planning and continuing. That’s the main thing: to be able to continue to do the thing I love most.

Was that TOO easy?

Ok, writers, you’re all familiar with THIS scenario:

Editing and revising for the eight, ninth, tenth, umpteenth time. Maybe a year or two. Removing subplots. Adding new characters. The story doesn’t resemble your original vision. The story doesn’t resemble…a story. You’re too much of a perfectionist. You’re growing tired of this piece but you HAVE to finish it. You moan, whine, and complain on social media about the stress you’re going through (which, in reality, is the stress you’re putting yourself through). Will you ever get done?

Right?

Well, that didn’t happen to me. Not quite, anyway.

I had started working on my historical crime fiction in 2014. Got a lot of basic outlining done as well as some significant research. I ran into a snag in the fall and then picked it up again in the spring of 2015. From there, I was moving right along like a freight train. Smooth and steady. Then I let it lay for about a month. The second draft was mostly a clean-up: grammar, punctuation, syntax, logic issues. The third draft was fleshing out, word choice, enhancement, description. I worked on a chapter at a time, edited, re-read the same chapter, and saved it before moving on. Forty-two chapters. Last night, I finished. After all this time, I still like this piece. I mean, I really like it.

The “problem” I’m encountering is that I think I’m done, at least from my end before handing it over to beta readers. (My wife will be the first.) But, in all the years I’ve been writing, I’ve never just stopped after three drafts. So, rather than sweating over numerous drafts and years, I’m concerned about the brevity of the process. Either this piece was really a part of me and just easy to get out, or it completely sucks and I like it too much to recognize it.

I have a feeling the answer is somewhere in between.

Be That Thing

There’s a difference between saying you are something and being that something. If you introduce yourself at a social function by saying “I’m a writer”, chances are you’ll get various responses:

“Have you written anything I’ve read?”
“Do you know Stephen King?”
“That must be fun.”

To the first, I have no idea what you read. To the second, no. To the third, you have no idea. The other comment that comes up is “What have you published?” It’s a valid question because, to most people, you are only a pretend writer if you have not been published. Even self-published. Working on your masterpiece for the past ten years will get you little sympathy or continued interest.

There is a fine line between putting something out that is crap that will forever ruin your name and waiting infinitely for the mot just like Flaubert and not publishing until your creative offspring is the epitome of brilliance and perfection. What is of most importance is that your work be out there for review and feedback. You will never improve your craft by lingering over a sentence or a chapter or realizing that your main character is too boring to be a protagonist after your thirteenth draft.

As writers, we are story-tellers. If you have told a compelling story, it is ready for others to enjoy. By virtue of the feedback you get, you will learn how to correct and modify and tighten your work so that it is more acceptable. This is not the time to contemplate your financial worth in the marketplace. This is the time to do what you’ve said all along that you would do: write. Stop hesitating. Be that thing.

Year-End Reflections

This time last year, I was in a dull funk as far as writing was concerned. Earlier in the year, I had started work on a historical crime fiction. It was to be a challenge for me but one I deemed worthwhile. I had to deal with selling my late parents’ home long distance. The process started out rather simple then devolved into chaos and confusion coupled with unprofessional people who I needed to trust. By the time that was resolved, it was the madness of the holiday season.
But in May, I recharged, going down to Oklahoma for my fourth OWFI conference, hooking up with my friend, Nick Lyon, meeting the amazing Les Edgerton, and generally reminding myself that I was still a writer.
Well, I completed the first draft of that book and am on the second edit now. John Lennon said it best: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. I’m just fortunate to have been able to get back to those plans.

Les Edgerton

9 mm Centerpiece

I moved to Wichita, KS twenty years ago from Boston, MA. Yet, I find this community as filled with artistic talent. I’ve met writers and poets, sculptors and artists, musicians — the gamut of what truly invigorates me. My wife and I had season tickets for several years to the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, regular attended shows at Music Theater Wichita, saw Cirque du SoleilTHREE times, and attended some great concerts over the past year at the historic Orpheum Theater.
But something makes me feel I haven’t explored as much of the arts scene as I could have and definitely should have. John Donne indicated that no man is an island unto himself. No man or no one interested in developing their art. I know I need to get out there more and meet some more people in this community who are passionate about creating something special and are urged on by a compulsion that can not be defined.

Why is it so difficult to disagree any more? Notice how I didn’t ask why we can’t get along. Personally, I think that’s overrated. But we seem to have lost our ability to disagree, civilly and intellectually. There is a pervasive attitude of “If you’re not with me, you’re against me” as opposed to “I disagree, but let’s hear what you have to say.” You see it in politics and in every aspect of contemporary culture, especially Facebook.
I went on a rant recently regarding something rather innocuous. A lady (who was a Facebook friend because she was a friend of a friend) commented, as was her right to do so. When the commentary started to become personal, I took offense. If you know me and can “analyze” me, fine. If you don’t know me, it’s best to stay away from that line of response. And I said so.
A couple of weeks later, after the rant had fully passed from my mind, I recalled with childish humor the whole exchange. I looked up the lady. Sure enough she had unfriended me. I figured it was her loss because I feel I am interesting and a good conversationalist. The real point is that she could not accept my comment on her comment and left.
Disagreement is not dissension.

I find myself more intrigued by experimental fiction. Metafiction, transgressive fiction, fonts and colors, non-linear story-telling. I still maintain my passion for noir and hard-boiled. Yet, I use the alternative styles as a playful experiment and wind up discovering something new.
I am fortunate to be friends with Eckhard Gerdes on Facebook and I follow an Experimental Fiction group. These writers are light years ahead of me but my fascination is part of the learning process. At 53, I am content to know that I am not stuck in a groove and have miles to go before I sleep.

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